It makes the pain go away until tomorrow
If you appreciated yesterday’s Hell World on drinking and not-drinking you might also like this interview I did with the newsletter The Small Bow last month.
You can find more from them here. Highly recommended if you’re sober or sober-curious or just like to read good writing on substance-related issues.
This intro below is theirs and then they ask me some questions. ok Bye.
There's a peak newsletter moment happening in media right now – which I think is inching up on the peak podcast moment we were just in a few months ago – and there seem to be new ones popping up each week, which is great. Newsletters make me excited and inspired in a way that most of the social media-driven internet does not. If they're done properly, I forget about the pull (or pall) of social media altogether. I can just check my email, read something once or twice, and will not read anything else online that may cause me to throw my phone out the window.
One of the newsletters I pay for is Luke O'Neil's "Welcome to Hell World" which on some days is bleaker than everything on the internet. I'd describe it as a hybrid of Rotten Dot Com and some of Charles Pierce's later Esquire writing. Luke has this unique ability to make upsetting news-story-recaps poignant and funny–oftentimes waaay more than 3,000 words with maybe three commas, tops. I think that mostly has to do with it being in newsletter format which helps in illuminating his particular brand of stunt-writing, and far better than if it were just slapped up on Word Press, overcooked and uncared for.
Luke's history with this site is this: I asked him to contribute to our "Why I'm Probably a Drunk" feature, which challenges writers still indentured by problem drinking to talk about it, hopefully with genuine self-awareness. He submitted his essay and after a thorough back-and-forth we produced something we both liked as did Aisha Tyler comedian and host of "Whose Line is It Anyway?" which was kinda random and fun.
His book editors also liked it, and I'm very happy they selected it as part of his newly-released "Welcome to Hell World" essay collection which you can buy here.
I followed up with Luke for a quick q-and-a to see if his drinking had changed since the essay came out. Here's what he said. — AJD
TSB: Since you wrote the essay "What It's Like Over Here, What's It's Like Over There?" for The Small Bow last January, have you reconsidered sobriety?
I want to make clear, right up front, that I'm self-conscious about talking about this stuff in front of people who are in recovery because I'm sure they've heard every version of every story and it can all sound cliche and maybe I'm deluded here, but in a word, yes. I think my thing is weird in that, I'm 42, and I don't think anyone would have ever considered me an alcoholic, certainly not myself, until about three or so years ago when I started drinking every night to deal with some shit. I have been three things in my life: a waiter, a musician, and a journalist, so naturally being in those fields you tend to be able to drink more than maybe the average person does, and the consequences of hangovers and being sort of a mess aren't quite as apparent and immediate, but I just wasn't a life-ruining drinker or anything close to it. I'm not even sure if I'm an alcoholic now, I think I'm probably [just] a compulsive and depressed person with a tenuous attachment to the idea of being alive and an aptitude for addiction. I've cycled through all sorts of different addictions over the years. I used to spend a lot of time in my twenties and early thirties doing cocaine. I used to love to gamble at casinos and on sports, whatever. And in almost every case of addiction I've moved on from, I did the things for a while longer after they stopped being enjoyable, then realized I wasn't getting any pleasure out of them anymore and I stopped pretty easily. Every now and again since then I will take a bump of coke or gone to a casino and realized almost immediately: Yeah, this isn't for me anymore.
Still, one likes to check back in on the old addictions from time to time to remind yourself that they don’t have anything left to offer you. They usually do not.
Drinking may or may not be the same thing for me, we'll see. I have winnowed down the amount I drink on a regular basis significantly since I wrote that piece for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it just isn’t fun for me anymore. I’m not even enjoying the grim aspect of it, and I think people here probably know what I mean: that 'romantic' lie of self-destruction stopped working on me, and I realized I was just putting myself in a bad mood for nothing. More important than all that it was making me fat, and not wanting to be fat is my overarching prime addiction that supersedes and probably drives all the other ones. The past six months or so I started taking some nights off then going to more nights off than not. There has certainly been a shitty week or two strewn into the midst where I went at it steadily, but at the moment I've drank like five of the last 20 nights, and on all of those times there was actually an occasion to drink, not just an obligation. I love it: it's so nice going to bed early reading a book and then waking up early and being able to write with a clear head.
TSB: That’s largely overlooked by most people when they stop drinking/smoking/drugging. Is that a reason for you to not get sober? Fear of getting fat?
It's crazy how many calories there are in whiskey. I don't think it ever even occurred to me until the past couple years that liquor has calories because it was rare that I ever drank enough that they would add up. On top of that, I eat so much more when I'm drinking.
One interesting thing, and this is sort of a side note, is that when I used to binge on coke for a night or two in my twenties I got pretty fat because when you get that hungover all you want to do is eat an entire pizza or whatever to fill up the hole inside your soul. I don't think it would be responsible of me to give my honest answer to the question about being sober versus gaining a lot of weight in front of people because it's definitely an unhealthy one. In the hypothetical where I'm doing on-the-brink-of-death-type drinking and destroying my life and relationships, then ok, that is one thing, and sure I'd rather be out of shape and alive than dead or close to it. But if my drinking is at the level it is now, I'd prefer to stay this way if the alternative is getting really out of shape.
My problem is, one thing your therapist (or whoever) will say as a tactic to stop doing unhealthy behaviors is to exercise. But I over-exercised myself every day of my life into these fucking recurring injuries I write about a lot because of my eating issues, and I finally had to stop really doing anything a couple years ago because I kept hurting myself over and over, and the depression from not being able to do that anymore led me to drink. Plus drinking is a great muscle relaxer in the short term. Terrible for healing in the long term, of course, but it makes the pain go away until tomorrow.
TSB: How is your mental state? Do you think your newsletter can only be written in a depressive state?
I am very conscious when writing Hell World and I hope this comes through, that despite some of my mental health and physical issues I've been dealing with and writing about regularly, the fact of the matter is that I haven't suffered anything beyond the run-of-the-mill-type of personal or existential calamities that almost everyone goes through at one point or another in their lives. Neither myself nor anyone I love has been shot to death or incarcerated or crushed under the wheels of predatory capitalism.
I have suffered no more than a person's fair share of loss and death in my life to this point and, amazingly, magically, unjustly one could easily argue, I am able to make a decent living, at least judging by 2019 middle-class freelancing standards by writing about whatever I want; and I am lucky enough to have an audience that seems to want to read it. This is weird, but every day I go to swim laps at the pool--something I write about a lot in Hell World--and I think about the lifeguard they have there whose job it is to be responsible for fifty people's lives at once. Some kid making, I don't know, $10 an hour if that, and their job is to drag my body out of the water someday. My wife works 10 hours a day molding children's minds. My job is to write 5,000 words a day about how the news made me depressed and my back hurting. I live the life of a relative king.
That said, it's impossible not to feel depressed writing about a lot of the subject matter I steep myself in, and I am generally miserable most days thinking about it. That's why it's important to me, and I really relish it when people say this to me, that Hell World is also funny. I don't know why, but it somehow seems to work. No one would read it if there wasn't a sense that we were all in on this together and doing our best to find humor where we can.
Another reason I've really tried to dial the drinking back the past six months is that I've developed a real anger problem if I drink past a certain level. I've lashed out at friends a few times in the past year or two over petty crap that didn't deserve anger and have certainly started a lot of fights on Twitter over things I really could have just let go.
TSB: What does anger look like for you? What does anger look like when you drink?
Anger for me takes the shape of not letting something small go. In my normal life I'm indifferent about pretty much everything--to an annoying degree. "Not my problem," I used to say all the time as a joke, but then in the way that things you say ironically become reality, that is sort of my mantra now. I almost never fight with my wife, but if I'm drunk I'll belabor some minor disagreement over nothing into a whole fucking thing. I also might be a dick to, say, a security guard at a show asking me not to stand in a certain place or whatever, as any minor expression of petty tyranny like that gets conflated to a grave injustice in my mind. I don't love it. I revert to a sort of younger, tougher version of myself that no longer exists. I was never any sort of badass tough guy or anything, but I had that attitude in me. I'm honestly surprised I haven't gotten my ass kicked more often by this point now that I'm older and less strong.
TSB: How do you plan on eliminating those angry-drunk-guy moments?
I think the 'harm reduction' process I've been trying out this year as opposed to full-stop abstinence has greatly reduced those moments. I've also pretty much stopped staying out late. I used to be out seeing bands 3-4 nights a week until around 40, but now it's a lot more rare. It's a byproduct of just getting older, but also not wanting to be in situations where I don't need to be at this point of my life. There's also an ego regulation aspect to it. Who am I? I'm no one. It's important to remind myself of that because it can be easy to lose track of when I'm a pint of scotch deep. And it's easy to start thinking that I'm some swashbuckling teller-of-truths-type guy and getting a little bit of praise for my writing can sometimes gives me an inflated sense of self-importance. Maybe some of my anger at minor sleights comes from that. But I know that I'm no one. I'm just a guy with a blog.
TSB: Do you fear if you become totally abstinent that you’ll have to confront a bigger, less manageable chemical imbalance?
I don't know the answer. I think, and I mentioned this earlier, that the body-image stuff is the underlying bedrock of all my other things; I've had that since I was a child, and I didn't even really touch a drink until I was 21. I was pretty militantly straight-edge growing up, in part because of a history of addiction in my family. But no, I am not worried there is some new layer of mental illness waiting to be unlocked were I to become completely sober, because how many more can there be? If anything, times when I'm sober make me happier to be alive. I read something recently where a writer was like I only ever wanted to kill myself when I was drinking so I stopped drinking and stopped wanting to kill myself all the time.
I think that applies to me, too. I don't want to die at all! I reserve the right to change my mind on that, though.
TSB: Are you happy with your career now?Is this WTHW book and newsletter success validating?
Sort of. It's certainly great to have complete autonomy and be on my own schedule and not have to ask permission to cover things I'm interested in and to deliberately work against everything I came to hate about the daily web-writing ecosystem. But I feel like I'm not quite at a point where I can relax or take anything for granted. The newsletter is still growing: I have devoted readers and make a pretty decent living, but it could all disappear tomorrow if everyone stops being interested or if I fuck it up somehow. I feel like there's a sword hanging over my head. It's thrilling in a way but also a lot of pressure.
The book, too, is very exciting, and people keep sending me excited photos of them getting their copy, and it should be a dream come true, but in reality I'm gonna sell a few thousand copies and it's going to disappear like most books do within a couple months, and then it's going to be like now what? That now what is what I wake up with every day though, I guess, and it's what makes me still try hard. I don't have to impress an editor, but I do have to impress the people who directly support me, the ones paying for the newsletter and book, so it's a mix of contentment and pressure. It's enough to drive a man to drink!I wrote this in a recent Hell World but, again, these are all pretty luxurious problems for a person to have. I write and tweet a lot about how journalists are routinely taken advantage of and underpaid and undervalued, but at the same time, whether or not writing is a real job or not fluctuates for me depending on who I am talking to. If it’s an editor or a publisher or someone like that, then yes, above all else pay me, but if it’s a person who actually has to work for a living, saying you’re a writer is embarrassing. It’s like saying you’re a delicate foppish princeling who lives in a golden palace on the moon and needs his butterscotch pudding or he’ll be ever so morose.
TSB: When did the no comma stream-of-conscious thing begin and is that just for the newsletter?
It started a few editions into the newsletter, about a year ago exactly, and I think it was probably in the one that's the first chapter in the book about John McCain's sainthood juxtaposed with the story of a young woman in Iraq whose family we murdered. The subject matter sent me into a state of despair and anger and made me sort of breathless and made my face hot and I was writing real fast and I thought it would be interesting if I could try to get readers to feel the same way and I think it worked, at least from what fans and readers have told me, but then again as I mentioned those people are not trustworthy.
There were commas for a while, and there are some in the book in a few chapters, but for the most part I just really started to hate the way they look and fuck up a sentence like speed bumps. Proper grammar has so many fucking pointless commas that are supposed to go in places that just don't make sense where someone should pause. The stream-of-consciousness thing dates back to my early days of trying to be the cliched young literary man and reading lots of Barthelme and post-modern works like that, but I had to set that aside, obviously, when writing for places like the Boston Globe, Esquire et al. Last year I read a book called Cherry by Nico Walker -- highly recommended for addicts! -- and it had this sort of matter-of-fact effect about really grim stuff and it unlocked something in my brain and I decided I wanted to write something that makes people feel like that book made me feel.
TSB: And how did it make you feel?
Just because everything in your life has gone to hell, it doesn't mean it's not still funny.